In a recently declassified study, researchers discovered that the nuclear explosions occurred during the Cold War created new Van Allen belts around the Earth, which could alter how satellites work in low orbits.
The cause appears to be the high-altitude nuclear tests carried out by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as their electromagnetic pulse effect (EMP) has had a significant impact on the Earth’s magnetosphere.
Researchers argue that it is unlikely that the Earth’s current space environment is “natural.”
The Cold War altered the Earth’s magnetosphere
According to the study, the EMP generated by nuclear explosions is just one of the threats that can result in catastrophic consequences for our society. As years go by, the use of electronic devices, as well as the vulnerability to an EMP attack have increased.
When a nuclear device explodes at a high altitude, it produces an EMP signal that covers the entirety of the detonation’s line of sight, potentially damaging critical structures whose functioning is based on electricity.
Each nuclear explosion has a different EMP effect depending on where and how high it is detonated. The threat of the electromagnetic pulse effect has been present since the first nuclear test was carried out, as the blast always seems to alter the devices used to measure the bomb’s effectiveness.
Now, it appears that due to the numerous nuclear tests, the Earth is now covered in belts of trapped high-energy particles, also known as Van Allen belts. The finding could explain why the near-Earth space can cause abnormalities in spacecraft.
The study reveals that there were “secret activities” in 1957 and 1957 to explode nuclear weapons in space to intentionally create artificial radiation regions in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The idea was to weaponize the EMP effect of a nuclear blast to disrupt radio communications.
Van Allen discovered the radiation belts in 1959, and subsequent nuclear detonations in 1962 from the U.S. and the USSR allowed for the effects to be much more recognizable. The declassified report illustrates how each nuclear test contributed to the formation of artificial radiation belts. Researchers also comment on each orbiting satellite that has been damaged by high-altitude nuclear explosions.
Many orbiting satellites suffered damages to their solar cells and transmitters, and some were even deemed irreparable due to the lingering radiation after the blasts. The explosions also created very low frequency (VLF) waves, which protect the Earth against particles that could be harmful to the biosphere.
Starfish Prime: Most notorious use of EMP by the U.S.
The most notable of the high-altitude nuclear tests was Starfish Prime in 1962. In the experiment, a nuclear warhead was launched from the Pacific Ocean, less than 1,000 miles from Hawaii. The explosion took place 250 miles above sea level, producing a 1.4 megaton blast.
The result was an EMP which was much larger than what scientists expected, as it altered the measuring instruments and damaged Hawaii’s electrical circuits, putting out over a hundred street lights and setting off alarms throughout the isle. Additionally, auroras were observed in the detonation area, illuminating a large area of the Pacific Ocean.
The EMP damages caused by Starfish Prime were quickly repaired, which led scientists to believe that damages from EMP would not be severe. Later they discovered that the EMP effect depends on where the warhead is detonated, as if Starfish Prime would have been executed in the continental United States, the EMP would have been much stronger. The rule appears to be that, the EMP effect is more severe as the explosion occurs closer to high latitudes.
In 2001, the U.S. formed the EMP Commission to address threats from electromagnetic pulse attacks. The commission analyzed how likely would the U.S. be exposed to an EMP attack and whether other countries are aware of this sort of weapon:
“Many foreign analysts – particularly in Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia – view the United States as a potential aggressor that would be willing to use its entire panoply of weapons, including nuclear weapons, in a first strike. They perceive the United States as having contingency plans to make a nuclear EMP attack, and as being willing to execute those plans under a broad range of circumstances,” reads a report delivered to the Senate in 2005.
Although there would be clear consequences, in 2010 the government issued a report to quell some of the myths regarding EMP blasts. The issue is that they ruled out extreme events in both ends, referring to the potential end of civilization and the blast being unnoticeable. In reality, because a large-scale EMP attack is yet to take place, the government is not entirely aware of the consequences, as they claimed back then that “no one really knows for sure what would happen.”
Some of the preventive measures issued by the government are to stay away from metal due to the risk of electrocution, and turning electronic equipment off to prevent if from getting damaged.
Source: Space Science Reviews